“Do we reach, man?” Reviewing “The Way to Eden”

What better way to spend a cold Sunday night in March (that’s still the first of spring) than with the worst original series Star Trek episode of all time? Watching “The Way to Eden” was simultaneously life affirming and completely ridiculous, bordering on shameful. On with the review, which is mostly going to be a deconstruction of the dated outfits and soul depleting musical numbers.

The action opens on the bridge of the Enterprise, which is in hot pursuit of the stolen spaceship Aurora. Rather than surrender, the vessel speeds up to dangerous power draining levels; Kirk beams its passengers aboard just before the tiny model spaceship explodes. Lo and behold, the thieves are a bunch of flower children, who emerge from transport with their hands making little triangles, some future kind of peace sign, I guess. They’re wearing all sorts of fun scraps of clothing left over from other bad costumes—polyester genie pants, half-attached wigs, loincloths, capes with firm creases, fake flowers in their hair. One of the barefoot hippies, Tongo Rad, wears a giant purple clown wig with matching eyebrows, which is visibly falling off his head; apparently he’s the son of some ambassador, so Kirk is forced against his will to treat them all hospitably instead of tossing the no-good hippies in the brig. Oh, all the far-out space hippies have flower tattoos painted on their arms; painted is the wrong word, possibly they were drawn on with sidewalk chalk.

A career character actor, Charles Napier, plays Adam, who’s kind of the mascot of the crew. Their leader is Dr. Sevrin, played by another long-time character actor of the 20th century, Skip Homeier. (Napier also appeared in episodes of “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider”, Homeier started as a child actor). Adam is wearing green velveteen thigh-highs, a polyester cape attached to a skort via brass chain, and a curly sandy blonde wig (also poorly affixed to his head—I could see an air pocket where spirit gum was leaking out). He has an instrument of the future, a piece of lumber with three rubber bands stretched across—this junky crossbow sounds just like a real harp. As soon as Captain Kirk talks with his new passengers, they judge him to be a square; Adam says, “Oh Herbert, you are stiff.” Dr. Sevrin requests Kirk take them all to the mythical planet Eden, Kirk denies the planet exists, and the flower children heckle him out of the transporter room.


Back on the bridge, Kirk asks Spock for some backstory on the hippies, and the real propaganda comes out. Spock replies, “There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created. It is almost a biological rebellion. A profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmosphere. They hunger for an Eden, where spring comes.” Kirk guffaws, says, “We all want that…but we don’t steal space cruisers and act like spoiled children!” This episode aired in February of 1969, when the flower power movement was just spreading to middle America. Some critics have compared Dr. Sevrin, the older scientist leading his young disciples to paradise, with Dr. Timothy Leary. Dr. Sevrin fails his medical exam (I think Kirk orders all the hippies to be checked for VD), and Kirk confines him to the brig. Sevrin is wearing a long cape that must have just come out of storage—it’s all creased up—and his giant fake cauliflower ears and shiny bald head make him look like the sea monkey father on the back of old comic books; remember the sea monkey family, waving hello?

While this is going on, there’s a side plot with Chekhov and one of the hippies, Irina, played by Mary Linda Rapelye. Supposedly they had a relationship back at Starfleet Academy (Kirk: “One of them went to Starfleet?” Chekhov: “She…dropped out, sir.”) The relationship is implausible: she’s a total babe (and clearly not Russian, her accent is worse than Natasha’s on Rocky & Bullwinkle), he’s a well-meaning stooge with a bowl haircut—those two would not have hooked up in college. Irina’s outfit is a floral genie affair with exposed belly; this little bit of skin is placed dead center in every boring scene to follow. It seems like they intentionally left the curlers in her hairdo, an impressive stack of rolls decorated with pastel plastic flowers. (Including the hairdo, Irina stands a full four inches taller than Chekhov—camera tricks are employed to even the score).


Now where the hell was I with this “review”? Irina is successfully seducing Chekhov, attempting to get information about the Enterprise from him; another flower girl tries to seduce Sulu—luckily, Kirk steps in and shames his pilot into chastity. After Adam’s physical (about which he scats: “Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy, got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy!”), he approaches Mr. Spock and asks if they can have “a session.” Spock agrees, Adam says “That’s real now!”, and the next scene is an excruciating love-in. This brick of stinky cheese that called itself a scene was so bad I muted it halfway through, taking copious notes to maintain. Adam croons off-key while strumming his stick and rubber bands, “I’m talkin’ ‘bout you, I’m talkin’ ‘bout me, long time back when the galaxy was new, man knew what he had to do…” and on an on, a tuneless song that the crew of the Enterprise attempts to groove to (one out of three extras bops their head, the others stand around staring into space).

Adam is accompanied by a female hippie (Deborah Downey) who’s dressed like an All-American cheerleader: red, white, and blue little shirt and skirt, side ponytail with a ribbon, shiny blonde hair. An American cheerleader gone bad. For the next song, Spock plays the Vulcan harp while Miss Oklahoma plucks at a bicycle wheel with red, white, and blue spokes. The hippies’ master plan is to get the crew so tuned in that they forget what they’re doing and leave the Enterprise ripe for hostile takeover. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but it’s a crucial plot point.


Chekhov and Irina have another patched-together scene, where she gathers more intelligence and he gathers tightness in the pants (Chekhov is searching for Eden, at Spock’s request—he made a deal with Dr. Sevrin, in an earlier bit that was notable only for its two sets of fake ears). Predictably, the scene ends with the two actors smashing their faces together. Kissing on the set of Star Trek seems highly dangerous; in episode after episode, a male officer (usually Kirk) closes his eyes and rams his lips at a being from another world.  I wonder if this blind face fighting ever resulted in a nosebleed.

The session’s good vibes are so powerful that Sevrin’s guard is reduced to snapping his fingers and mooning about with his eyes closed, so the purple clown wig guy is able to free their leader. It’s worth noting that when this episode aired, white America had not learned how to dance yet. Multiply that squareness with boxy Star Fleet uniforms, crew cuts, and poofy up-dos, and you can see why I barely made it through the love-in.

Up on the bridge, a few officers are tapping their feet to the hip tunes, but Kirk and Scottie are not impressed. Scottie, representing the establishment, whines, “I don’t know why a young mind has to be undisciplined! They’re troublemakers!” (A few episodes before this one, Scottie got tanked on bourbon down on an old west planet, then defended his right to be drunk on the job with vigor). The troublemakers manage to take over auxiliary control and fly the Enterprise to Eden.

Over the intercom, Spock reveals to the hippies that their guru is actually insane (and carrying some nasty disease), according to medical records he looked up. But the hippies ignore this warning, even knocking out the crew of the Enterprise with sonic blasts to make their escape. When the sound frequency hits Captain Kirk, he freezes, falls to the floor, and writhes around, legs extended; this reminded me of a fire safety drill we had to do in elementary school:“Stop, Drop, and Roll.”

Kirk, Spock, Chekhov, and Bones beam down to Eden, which has a rather impressive set: real rose bushes, dirt paths, fake trees, and a water feature. Ironically, Eden is completely toxic; devoid of human and animal life, its plants and soil are acidic. When the away team finds the hippies, their bare feet are burned. Adam lies dead and splayed at the foot of a tree, with a bloody poison fruit falling out of his hand. Just to make sure we get it, Spock says, “His name…was Adam.”

The hippie ladies and Tongo Rad (which would be a good name for a pet hamster) agree to return to the Enterprise, but crazy Dr. Sevrin takes off running. He climbs up the same fruit tree, grabs a poison pear and manically takes a bite, then acrobatically falls down dead on a patch of Astroturf.  His death passes without comment, and, as in many Star Trek scripts, to avoid any boring closure on the planet the director cuts back to the Enterprise and rolls the theme music. Kirk dumps the surviving hippies at a nearby starbase, presumably to be picked up by their parents and grounded for a month.

There, I did it, I reviewed the crappiest Star Trek episode of all time. Was “The Way to Eden” inside the bounds of respectable production values? No, it was…pretty far out.

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Two hours of flowing capes and barfy romance: a review of Marvel’s “Thor”


Still life with PBR, orange, and bad movie 

Up here in the hinterlands, far from streaming Internet access, we resort to the neighborly passing around of DVDs to survive the long winter nights. The DVD that came to us last night was Thor, which I can sum up with only three phrases: pretty stars, plodding “tension”, stinky cheese.

At two hours and five minutes, Thor is an hour and ten minutes too long. This Kenneth Branagh affair (he directed and otherwise spooged all over it) stars a former Australian soap opera star in the title role. Chris Hemsworth’s main contribution to the movie is his God-like physique; I tried to like this Thor, I really did, but the old comic book character in my memory easily trumped the living actor.

Thor is one of the earlier Marvel Avengers series movies, and probably the worst in the franchise. The only reason to watch this movie, as with too many comic book movies of late, is the CGI, which is stunning and extremely rich. I suppose if you just scored an eighth and you’re really into Viking helmets, you might also enjoy Thor.

Rather than summarize the plot (which I already did, with just the phrase “stinky cheese”), I’ll point out a few plot holes and some partially decomposed dialogue. A few scenes in, Thor and his buddies from Asgard take the Bifrost (a wormhole bridge in their part of the universe) over to Yodenheim, the ice planet of the frost giants, on a flawed mission of retribution. While the male Vikings are suitably dressed in shiny chainmail, flowing capes, and well-groomed beards (the red-haired dude crimped his), the female Viking is wearing a halter-top and high heels. While I can appreciate the need for a sexy Viking babe in an otherwise boring scene, I shook my head when she broke into a run in stiletto boots, across a sheet of ice. Not even a god can do that.

Down on earth, the action is centered around a small town in New Mexico, on the edge of the desert. Jane (Natalie Portman) is apparently an astrophysicist, supported by a team of one old Scandinavian guy and a slightly chubbier brunette, her student intern or something. All three characters combined are not as smart as one real astrophysicist. Jane’s first line, spoken to Thor after he falls through a wormhole and she smacks him with her car, set the tone for her character: “Do me a favor and don’t be dead.” It sounded even worse the second time around, when the scene was repeated after Thor’s 20-minute long, synthesizer heavy flashback. A relationship is concocted for Jane and Thor, in a process that reminded me of extruding play dough spaghetti. They have all the chemistry of a science fair volcano; watching them emote on each other forced me to reconsider my previously good opinion of Natalie Portman.

Thor was banished from Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and although Thor was tossed down to earth in his Viking outfit, he wakes up in a T-shirt and jeans. Anthony Hopkins seems resigned to his role in this Gouda fest; despite an eye patch, he sticks to two main facial expressions: kinglike and comatose (for when he enters a coma). Thor’s hammer follows him down to earth, but he has lost the ability to wield it, so it sits chemically bonded to a crater in the desert. A pointless scene of drunken yahoos trying to yank it out with their fists and trucks is fabricated just so Stan Lee can have his mandatory cameo (as a drunken yahoo). It’s like they had to insert a bunch of fatter, stupider characters first, so Stan would look reasonably good by comparison. Oh, and Rene Russo plays Odin’s Viking Queen, which in the actual legend of Valhalla is a very important role—the divine feminine, essentially. In this movie she has three bland lines and five minutes of screen time.

Loki is Thor’s younger, unhunky brother, and something of the royal whipping boy—I forgot the actor’s name, and, hopefully, will soon forget his performance. In Norse mythology, Loki is a trickster, mischievous but neither good nor bad (and definitely not a whipping boy). Here he is the main bad guy, prancing about in a Kelly green cape and a bunny eared helmet. He’s saturnine by nature (he was a born a baby frost giant, King Odin rescued and raised him), and a magician; he can replicate his image, and seemingly travel the space-time continuum at will. Though the screenwriters made an effort to explain some of the film’s “science facts”, they didn’t touch that one.

Loki crowns himself king while Odin is in a self-induced coma, then sends a shiny metal robot knight down to earth to fight Thor and crew in the little New Mexican town. There was heavy product placement in this scene: an Acura raced by, a fat guy drank a Budweiser in front of the Bank of America, and the robot knight blew up a 7-11. Thor, now a mortal without his hammer, is defeated by the robot knight; he collapsed as quiet, reflective music told me how to feel. Jane weeps over her dying hunk of man, maintaining some level of dignity as sunlight blazes off the robot knight’s giant metal ass. At this moment, Thor has fulfilled his destiny; his hammer rises up out of the desert and flies into his waiting meat hook, he is a Marvel superhero once more. An epic battle ensues between Thor 2.0 and the robot knight (whom I instantly rooted for—he didn’t speak once, but was the most interesting character in the whole movie); they exchange A-bomb level energy blasts without breaking a single window or bursting one pipeline. Well done, continuity team.

I apologize for going into low-grade plot summary (but it was a low-grade plot, let’s be honest); there was no way to explain the series of biffs and fumbles that is Thor without it. So what did I actually like about Thor? Its gorgeous CGI: there were deep space star clusters, a golden mead hall in Asgard, and a pastel and chrome mythical city. Especially the star clusters. I wish the whole two hours were just a tour of deep space, actually. Some, not all, of the costumes were cool—where was Thor’s helmet, hmm? That’s a major part of his outfit in the myth and the Marvel comic book, but here his Bondi beach blonde locks were his only protection. The soundtrack could have been replaced by random hold music and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’ll give Thor one and half stars, out of respect for the CGI artists. Kenneth Branagh, should we ever cross paths I will retroactively apply the rules of Elizabethan theater and pelt you with a sack load of rotten cabbages. Boo!

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On Epiphany, we went to the movies and saw



Warning: spoilers ahead!

Last night an old friend took me to see The Danish Girl at a movie theater in Boulder, Colorado, where I’m stopped for a week or so. As we walked across the parking garage with a herd of other people, we passed a large circle of adults standing around passing joints at an even clip, fifteen feet from the theater entrance. I did a double take, and then remembered I was in Boulder, Colorado. (I presume the red-eyed theatergoers were there to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens—all I know is they didn’t see The Danish Girl). We got our tickets and raced in as the opening credits were rolling; from the first shot I saw—a ballerina stretched over her chiffon skirts, looking up at a strained angle—this was a beautiful, heart-tugging piece of work.

The palette of this film is cold—it’s set in Copenhagen in 1926—blues, grays, bone-white, and icy black canals. This bleak background contrasts brilliantly with the stunning transformation of Einar Wegener, the male (and female) protagonist. Based on a true story, the film elegantly follows the first recorded transgender woman through her life as a depressed married man loved by a beautiful woman, into a fragile loose cannon of femininity. Eddie Redmayne plays the title role, in possibly the most demanding, revealing role of his career so far. (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything). The only other movie I had seen him in was a stinking bomb, Jupiter Ascending, and I had badly misjudged him based on that rotten pumpkin. His performance here is flawless, and requires many subtle changes of language and mannerism—his hands were like their own characters, inventing a feminine vocabulary.

Before I get too far afield, here’s a rundown of the story: Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), paints her husband, Einar Wegener, as a lady, in a wry joke on the art world. It awakens the feminine in Einar (who is also a painter), and he begins to cross-dress in public, under the name Lili Elbe. The Lili paintings are wildly popular, and the pair travel to Paris where Gerda gains recognition, and Einar turns more fully into Lili. But he must suppress Lili to save his marriage, which he suddenly cannot do anymore. Gerda loves him enough to accept it, and helps Lili emerge—this is a very complicated relationship, and masterfully handled onscreen. While the couple are in France, they find Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil, played by Matthias Shoenaerts, who fleshes out their shared past (secret kisses, the shame of being caught), and offers a masculine counterpoint to Lili and Gerta. Alicia Vikander is outstanding; her character also changes in this story, from a confident artist secure in a joyful marriage, to a possessed painter, slashing the lines of Lili’s body across canvas after canvas. The love of her life is gone, and a strange new person occupies his body. She chooses, and succeeds, to love this other person as a friend.

After a string of sadistic doctors, a few of whom Einar barely escapes (think ominous lobotomy knives, straight jackets, radiation horror shows), they find a German doctor who is willing to try the first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. The director, Tom Hooper, keeps the pacing steady, with pressure: things are being attempted here that have never been tried before. A man is posing as a woman in public, before and after his total castration—an operation that rarely succeeds. The second surgery is to shape him into a woman, and it’s riskier than the first. It’s never been done before, not in recorded history, and the previous candidate fled hours before the operation—but Lili never hesitates. Surgery in 1926 was dangerous; infections happened all the time, drug dosages were a crapshoot, and doctors operated without scrutiny. Infections take hold of Lili after both surgeries; morphine and Gerda’s care bring her back the first time.

After the first surgery, Lili returns with Gerda to Copenhagen, and takes a job in a department store. She’s the envy of the other girls, her red lipstick radiant against pale, long cheeks. She passes easily, and other women compliment her slim hips (perfect for the twenties ideal of beauty) and graceful walk. Eddie Redmayne, I mean, Einar, changed from male to female so completely that by the end of the film I couldn’t even remember what he looked like as a man. I hope he does win the Oscar.

After the second surgery, Lili wakes and says, “I am wholly myself now.” She asks to be taken outside to the garden, where she dies, Gerda at her side. The last scene lunged right at my heart: Gerda and Hans travel to the fjords of their dead friend’s childhood, passing scenery that has appeared throughout the story in Einar’s paintings. They stand in strong winds at the top of a tall ledge, looking over the sea. Lili’s peach and black silk scarf frees itself from Gerda’s neck and flies up, up and out, folds itself and opens again, is gone.

Please forgive the plot summary; this story is so dense and told so well I had to run through it again. Lili’s diaries were published as a book, “Man into Woman,” in the 1930s, and this book is the first of its kind. Transgender people are gaining some ground with civil rights, but it’s a slow fight. We live in  a dark time for humanity, when the other is pushed away, made hideous. It was not always this way: androgyny was once a sign of the gods, sleeping with both men and women was the right of the tribe’s shamans. The Danish Girl offers more of the human story than ten lesser movies combined. My friend and I left the theater quietly, and that night I dreamt of giant women with unblinking eyes.

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In which 18 two-year-olds meet Santa

This morning we have eighteen children in class, all new to walking. More expressive with their bodies than their voices. All under three feet tall, most much less: Gabby, Vienna, Advay, Kiara, Gino, Luca, Julianna (these three are triplets), Lela and Talia (blonde twins), Gemma, Tusant, Clara, Natalia, Caleb, Madeline, Olivia, Finnegan, and Laughlin—he’s the youngest, and very chubby in baby and other ways. Teresa and I are the teachers, but I’m also an unshowered substitute, barely cleared to work.  We have two volunteers: Angelo and Rosa, the triplets’ parents. Promptly at nine Angelo turns on the radio (we only use the failing boombox’s cd feature, and only for nap time and cleanup) and finds bad Christmas music, frequently and loudly interrupted by commercials; all of this blasts in disharmony with children shrieking and adults yelling to be heard. At 9:15 I turn the radio way down, and bald Angelo (who doesn’t have much of a neck, just many folds) puts on his iPhone’s headphones and starts bopping up and down. Rosa, a mama bear, changes all eighteen diapers by 9:30, though I offered to switch off with her twice. Teresa has a bad sore throat and sets up the party snacks—today is Christmas party day, all over the school—a strange assortment of things donated by parents: limp melons, Oreos, stale goldfish crackers, oranges, cherry tomatoes. Dumped on holiday paper plates, these foods clash together and the little chickies eat them so slowly; one orange slice lasts five minutes. Apple juice spreads quickly over the low tables and floors; the crappy brown school paper towels are useless against it.

At ten we line up to walk down the hall to Santa, as instructed by the school’s director, Peggy, an hour ago. Everyone’s in line, it’s all set, and then another teacher yells down the hall “There’s a holdup, wait fifteen minutes and try again.” We release the kids into the room, where dramas belch out and whining picks up. This is not their routine, not what they’re used to. Olivia is new to school and cries continually, her face is slick with fluids. Kiara takes her boot off once, twice, thirteen times; she’s so pretty, and smiles so much, it’s impossible to be mad at her. We line up again, and again are told to wait, this time until 10:45. Teresa is ten years younger than me but has a daughter (I am the only childless adult in the room, possibly the oldest adult too, at 34) and doesn’t talk much today, her throat is raw. Angelo, who looks a little like the Thing (and sounds like him too) says, “What the hell? It doesn’t take a neural surgeon to know these kids have the least patience—they should see Santa first.” He shakes his head (twice as big as my head) and his wife, sitting with all three of their children in her lap, rolls her eyes. I feel I should add something—these people don’t even know my name, so I say, “In two months of working here, today is by far the most intense.” Fifteen tearful, angry, fierce, naughty minutes later (and that’s just what’s showing on the small, moist faces directly in front of me) we walk down the hall to the front of the school, where Santa is waiting with a plastic bag of presents bought by the children’s teacher (who is out today with her own sick three-year-old). Santa is both gentle and mysterious; I cannot tell how old he actually is. Kind voice, crinkly eyes, gin blossom tamped down with baby powder. The kids, mostly terrified of Santa, sit on a bench ten feet away. They will be called up one at a time to get their gift, a plush pillow made by other children thousands of miles away. Someone gives me a camera and a new job, photographing this event. “Natalia! Merry Christmas, c’mon up here!” calls Santa, but Natalia is scared. She is one of three black kids in the class; Advay is Indian—does he even know who Santa is?; Olivia is Hispanic; the triplets and their parents are second generation Italian, so is Gemma. (In other classes in this school there are other Indian children, Koreans, beautiful combinations of black and white and Latino.) The 18-month-olds, the 20-month-olds, the 2-year-olds lurch up to Santa and take their gifts, or do not—often they are too petrified to move and the presents are deposited in their laps by intermediary adults. I take a photo of every exchange—in two out of eighteen I get the child’s face somewhere near Santa’s. As a photographer I do poorly, and rate myself a B- overall for the morning; I could have been kinder about the radio, could have said something instead of just turning it down. When Angelo and Rosa’s triplets are called, their girl is brash, pushes her brothers aside. Finnegan, a chubby faced blue-eyed curly blonde boy, very Irish, stomps up to Santa, then snatches his toy and turns away in one motion, like a breaching sperm whale.

Santa takes rejection and ingratitude in stride (is he going to the mall after this?) and his jolly laugh is real, despite the painful irony of handing out cheap toys under a big wooden crucifix. (This used to be a Catholic school, now it’s a nonprofit but the nuns still show up once a week and walk around in a haze). Costumed, all of us: most of the teachers, myself included, and Peggy and the secretary, Fran, are wearing red sweaters or blouses and dark pants. We look like a bloated color guard, closing ranks around our tiny royals. Kiara is last up and smiles broadly (she likes adults, a lot) and finally it’s over, our herd shuffles off. Gemma, Olivia, and Advay hang on my jeans and hands as we step slowly back to our room, which used to be the Catholic school’s cafeteria. As soon as we get back, Rosa and Angelo bundle up their crew and rush out, far quieter than their pre-Santa selves. Tanya comes in, dressed as an elf (she went room to room this morning, reading a Christmas book and wearing a pointed hat with fake ears pinned on). She turns off the lights, shuts the blinds, and gets us all to sit down on the rug. “We’ve under lockdown,” she says, looking only at me, then Teresa. “It’s a manhunt,” she mouths, “They’ll tell us when it’s over.” (Later, another teacher tells me a five-year-old’s body was found that afternoon, and cops swept the area, looking for a black pickup truck. Which was made up: the boy’s half-sister murdered him). And so we all sit in confused silence, the kids chewing on their new plush pillows, looking up at us for some idea of what the hell is going on. Kiara has hung on to me pretty much all morning, and now leans against me hard, plays with my prayer beads. I am calm, children look at my face and see no fear—this is not my usual. Fifteen minutes later Peggy (who has continually disrupted our morning) comes in and gives us the all clear. Kiara stands up and lays her head on my chest. Next up: lunch.

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Upping the ante: a critical look at Marvel’s latest offering


On Saturday evening we drove to the strip mall movie theater to see Ant-Man. I asked the stoner kid selling tickets what he thought of the film; after a pause, he replied, “It was surprisingly good. Ant-Man is played by Paul Rudd, who has a quality of douchèyness, which works for the role.” I am in complete agreement with his assessment—Paul Rudd’s douchèbag roots are crucial to Ant-Man—but more on that later.

I hadn’t been to a second-run movie theater in many years, and had forgotten about the threadbare seats, Skittles chemically bonded to the floor, and giant family groups crashing in after the movie starts. But where else can two people see a movie for $5? We smuggled in drinks and chocolate bars, making it an especially cheap date. On with the review.

Ant-Man is yet another Marvel movie executive produced by Stan Lee (et al; I never catch the other guys’ names) and directed by Peyton Reed. It stars Paul Rudd, an actor I knew nothing about except that he’s the poor man’s Ben Affleck. (Brainteaser: who is cooler, Ben Affleck or his various imposters?) Ant-Man’s workaday identity is Scott Lang (same initials as Stan Lee, who has a reasonably sized ego), just released from San Quentin for his Robin Hood type computer crimes against a corrupt bank. Oh, he’s also a master cat burglar and has a young daughter, Cassie, now being raised by his ex-wife and her fiancé, a dim-witted cop who looks not unlike Cromagnon man.

Lang tries to avoid falling back to thievery, but after he’s fired from Baskin Robbins he gives up and joins a ragtag bunch of ex-con kindred spirits. Their first job is to rob a safe in a fancy Victorian house (the movie is loosely set in San Francisco), but all Lang finds in the safe is a slamming retro suit and beakers filled with green Kool-aid. The house belongs to Dr. Hank Pym, a jaded old scientist played by Michael Douglas. Dr. Pym allows his suit to be stolen (he set up the robbery, actually), knowing Lang will try it on and shrink down to half a centimeter tall, and gain some handy super-strength. Which he does, in a scummy clawfoot bathtub. Lang’s buddy turns on the faucet, and tiny Ant-Man is splashed out and through the floorboards, down onto a spinning turntable in a bumping party; he must escape through giant stomping platform shoes and a scary mouse hole. The imagery is very well done; like in many Marvel movies, the CGI ties back visually to Ant-Man’s comic book roots—it’s a series of clean action shots in vivid colors.

Lang tries to unsteal the suit but Dr. Pym’s daughter, Hope, calls the police, and Lang is busted by fifty or sixty cops (standard response for breaking & entering calls, I assume). Hope is played by Evangeline Lilly, one of my favorite actresses lately. Here’s what I like about her: she’s totally badass and has made brilliant career moves. Lilly is Canadian, and started out as a model for phone sex ads (the “call me” girl); then she got hired to play Kate on the TV show Lost, and from there, she jumped to movies. At the very end of Ant-Man, there’s a teaser scene for the sequel; Dr. Pym takes Hope down to his secret lab in the basement and shows her the flying, shrinking supersuit he was making for her mother, The Wasp (who died a hero, in a touching superhero family flashback). Dr. Pym says something like, “I think it’s about time we got you into that suit,” and Hope replies, “It’s about damn time.” From phone sex model to Marvel Superheroine; impressive career arc. Hope’s shiny black bob and pinstripe suit are the classiest costume in the movie, though I did enjoy Michael Douglas in a tweed jacket and John Lennon glasses.

A brief plot synopsis is required here: for decades, Dr. Pym successfully hid the Ant-Man suit from his protégé, Dr. Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll. Dr. Cross is evil (and, it must be noted, very stupid), and takes over Pym’s company, then makes his own microsuit, the Yellow Jacket, a weapon of war. To stop this weapon from being released into the world, Dr. Pym needs Scott Lang—so he busts him out of jail with his ant army, which he controls via telepathic technology (apologies if this jumps around a bit—it was noisy in the $2 movie theater and my notes are jumbled). The newly formed team of Dr. Pym, Hope, and Ant-Man manage to break into Tony Stark’s warehouse and borrow some fancy gadget—Ant-Man goes a few rounds with the Falcon—and then they’re ready to blow up Cross’s headquarters. The loveable ex-cons from scene two are brought in to round out the team and gawk at Evangeline Lilly’s smokin’ curves. In essence, their plan relies on the unilateral stupidity of the bad guys; it’s a comic book movie, so the plan holds.

I can accept incompetence in security guards, cops, and other miscellaneous cartoons in the protagonist’s way.  (Example: two bumbling undercover cops leave the keys in the ignition when they get out to waylay Dr. Pym, facilitating a crucial joy-ride diversion).  But the main bad guy must be compelling and intelligent; Dr. Cross is neither. He’s the weak link in this movie, with few decent lines and a sum total of three facial expressions. They gave him a Lex Luthor sort of look (I know, I’m mixing DC and Marvel here), and the most clichéd possible pathos: he found a father figure in Dr. Pym, then that father figure let him down. He sees Ant-Man as Pym’s “chosen son,” and longs to squish him. I don’t believe Dr. Cross (as in, double cross) was smart enough to get a degree in nanoscience, let alone steal a company, set up an arms deal, and plot nefarious revenge.

As you’ve probably guessed, Ant-Man manages to take out Dr. Cross, save the world, reunite with his daughter, and play some quick tonsil hockey with Hope, his future partner in the Ant-Man sequel. Stan Lee gets his mandatory cameo (in this case, as a leering bartender), and Dr. Pym miraculously recovers from a bullet wound to the chest.   Michael Douglas was the correct choice for Dr. Pym; he’s the right kind of jaded for the role, and brings valuable street cred to a mostly younger cast. The quality of douchèyness Paul Rudd offers is vital, because Ant-Man is actually a B-list superhero; he knows he’s not on par with the Avengers, his extra mask is cockiness. When an introduction with that A-team is hinted at towards the end, Lang is ecstatic.

I liked Ant-Man, despite its plot holes and lack of a convincing villain. The CGI was artful, especially the insects, which had faces and personalities. Ant-Man rides a flying carpenter ant, whom he names Antony; poor Antony is shot by Dr. Cross in the final chase scene.  A single wing floats gently down to the pavement, reflecting rainbow light; it’s a welcome slow breath in the middle of the loudest action sequence. The last battle between Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket goes down in Cassie’s bedroom, on her train set; the micro-fighters hurl Thomas the train engine at each other (which our audience found gut-bustingly funny, for some reason).  To destroy Yellow Jacket’s suit, Ant-Man must go “subatomic”; he releases his own suit’s molecular constraints and begins to shrink down, down, down. It’s an interesting subatomic trip; he kind of enters a bardo, a place of limbo between lives. And, like a bardo, a familiar voice calls Ant-Man back—here it’s his daughter. The costumes were cool, the soundtrack knew when to back off, and the $2 movie crowd laughed at every joke, no matter how flat. I’ll give Ant-Man three and a half stars, and maybe we’ll hit the second-run movie theater again next week.


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A review of “The Martian,” written by my Martian alter-ego


Instead of my usual review style—witty, insightful, and without drawn-out exposition, naturally—this time I’m going to pose a series of questions. Despite getting my bag searched by the ticket-taker, I successfully smuggled a 22 oz. ginger kombucha beer and two fancy chocolate bars into The Martian, and these substances greatly affected my note-taking abilities. I give you my scribbled questions, and answers.

Q: If the planet Mars were a letter, which letter would it be?

A: The letter O, because of all the pancake craters on the planet’s surface. Also, if The Martian paints an accurate picture of the red planet, looking at its vast, jagged, and shifty surface makes people, like Matt Damon for instance, say, “Ooooh.” Well, to be fair, he never actually said that, but he made that sort of face, and he did say, “I’m the first person to be alone an entire planet.”

Q: Do female astronauts really need to wear eyeliner in space?

A: Probably not, but in the case of the commanding officer of the Mars mission that accidentally left Mark Watney (Matt Damon) behind, the eyeliner outlined the most expressive part of her face inside the bulky space helmet, thus conveying crucial nonverbal information. On a related note, since when did astronauts and mission control officers get so pretty? Sally Ride is one of my heroes, but she’s not what I’d call babe material.

Q: What’s the most absurd soundtrack to force upon a man stranded on Mars, struggling to survive?

A: Disco, and so it works beautifully. Hot Stuff, Turn the Beat Around, and Love Train blast as Watney cruises empty landscapes in his tiny rover, or sweats in the stuffiness of his space suit. Surprisingly, the one David Bowie song to make the cut is not “Life on Mars,” but another whose name I forgot (“star man, floating in the sky…”)—this too works splendidly against the wide screen shots of the space ship turning.

Q: Which hole is scarier: a black hole or a hole in a space helmet?

A: Well, this movie only showed a hole in a space helmet, and it was terrifying. The sound of the oxygen rushing out, the computer voice calmly reciting, “Oxygen level, critical,” and Watney desperately patching the hole with shiny space duct tape, hampered by his giant gloves—all of this was scary. A black hole might be less scary, because it could be a faster experience. Then again, has anyone ever gone over an event horizon and lived to tell the tale?

Q: Did Matt Damon actually lose twenty pounds during the filming of this movie? (His character is slowly starving on dwindling rations, and by the time of his rescue, he’s barely alive).

A: I don’t think so, because there’s never a shot of Damon’s face and this bony new body together. Also, the gaunt, drawn body seems to be a little taller than Damon’s.

Q: How did Jeff Daniels do, as the director of NASA?

A: I love Jeff Daniels; Paper Man is one of my favorite films of the last ten years, followed closely by The Squid and the Whale, another movie he stars in. That said, I was kind of disappointed by him in this role. But then: in a movie where all the empathy (and most of the screen time) is devoted to a handsome astronaut fighting valiantly for survival on a distant planet, how can a pinstriped bureaucrat with lines like, “Congress won’t let us buy so much as a paperclip, let alone a satellite,” expect to stand out? I hope Jeff Daniels was at least paid well.

Q: Last question. What would you rate this movie?

A: I think it’s a solid three and three quarters out of five stars. I liked the beautiful, desolate CGI landscapes, I liked the shiny space ships and the way the actors gracefully swooped around (one woman was like a ballerina, toes tightly pointed and neck arched). The disco soundtrack was glorious (how many movies play a full Donna Summers tune anymore? I was grooving with my ginger kombucha beer).  I can’t give The Martian a full four stars, or anything higher, because the film’s production staff kept insisting (in all the promotional material, not to mention quotes from the original book’s author) that the plot is not so far-fetched, it could really happen. And, while the science may be sound—Watney could actually have grown potatoes in astronaut poop and escaped in a spacepod with a tarp for a roof—one crucial point was neglected: he lived completely alone for over a year and a half, in a brutal climate, with no change to his character or his psyche. That’s hard to believe. He talked into the NASA cameras a lot, and, after a few weeks of isolation he managed to connect with NASA on earth and communicate, somewhat, with other people, but that’s not the same as actual human contact. The people he was space-texting with were four years of travel time away, and for the majority of his time on Mars, his survival was not likely. But, he pulled himself up by his moonbootstraps and kept on keeping on, never once breaking down, even when he accidentally blew up his potato crop. I wish he had; his stone-faced resolution made it hard to see him as a fleshed out character. At the very end of the movie, when he’s back at NASA telling the junior recruits all about his spaceman adventures, there’s a line or two on resilience, not giving up, et cetera—it’s ham-handed and tacked on. They should have ended the movie with him kissing the earth (which he also doesn’t do). See this movie if you like manly sci-fi, ballerina astronauts, and close-ups of Matt Damon’s pores.

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and here it is…

</div>”>My ABC book, published under my refuge name, Sopa Pekar.  I apologize for neglecting this blog for so long, I was working on this book.

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By reviewing this bomb, I redeem the two hours I lost watching it: a dissection of “Jupiter Ascending”


After several weeks of watching either good or mediocre movies, I finally watched a movie so bad I must review it, in hopes of purging it from my consciousness. Jupiter Ascending was released in February 2015, seven months later than initially advertised. Ninety-five percent of the visual imagery is computer generated; I imagine the extra time was needed to give the CGI artists’ wrists a break.

This short theater run, rushed to DVD affair is a Wachowski brothers film, the same guys who wrote and directed the Matrix series. The Matrix movies were stunning, new, and fast; this sort of neutralized their bad dialogue and occasional flat acting. Jupiter Ascending is certainly loud and fast—its extended explosions and bumping Midi keyboard soundtrack gave me a headache—but with none of the interesting plot points and no decent dialogue. The lead actress, Mila Kunis (best known as the annoying Jackie of That Seventies Show) is a one-trick pony; she wears the same wide-eyed, vacant expression for the whole movie. Her sassy catch phrase, “Holy Crap!”, hurt me a little more every time. Jackie plays Jupiter Jones, a girl who somehow ends up in Chicago after her pregnant mother is kicked out of Russia; the two clean houses and live with boorish, ruddy-faced relatives—it’s shameless stereotyping of Russians, the fat patriarch uncle actually lectures Jupiter on the value of a dollar in America. But all that is backstory (painful, plodding backstory); suddenly, she’s on the universe’s hit list, and scores of aliens are chasing her through downtown Chicago (which is where the Wachowski brothers are from, and I guess explains the pointless, eight minute long exploding chase scene across the Chicago skyline). The jarring transition from dark family life to bombastic space war was the first of many plot spasms so violent they threatened to blow up my DVD player.

Luckily, Caine (Channing Tatum) gets to Jupiter before the other buff bounty hunters do; his orders are to abduct, not kill. Caine was hired by one of the three Abraxis siblings who rule the universe, or something. The plot of this bloated space opera is nonsensical, overly complicated, and I refuse to sacrifice any more neurons explaining it. Caine’s DNA is part human, part wolf (so he’s “moody”), and he wears a pair of reverse gravity boots all the time; these reminded me of those flashy kids’ sneakers with cheap roller skates hidden underneath. Honestly, I can’t describe more of the storyline without bringing on a migraine, so here’s an attempt at summary: Jupiter and her moonboots-wearing wolfman abductor fall in barfy love as petty, evil siblings fight over the resources of earth and nearby planets (read: slaves), employing dozens of side characters who glance off the plot, leaving visible skid marks behind.  Soft disclosures about alien life and upcoming plasma technology are scattered here and there, but anything more profound or coherent collapses under the weight of this $175 million hack job.

The über bad guy is the whiny older brother of the Abraxis siblings (abraxas is a medieval magic word, akin to abracadabra—the Wachowski brothers are big on lifting stuff from literary and historical sources willy-nilly), played by Eddie Redmayne. He’s utterly forgettable, alternating between a pained whisper and a pathetic screech in every forced exchange. To be fair, Eddie Redmayne—I can’t remember his character’s name, and I watched this mess last night—is mostly talking to himself in an empty sound stage, while wearing a cape. All his henchmen are CGI characters; perhaps the lack of human interaction doomed his performance. A little more on the CGI characters: there are unblinking transhumans, saurian lizard generals, elephant-faced pilots, “traditional” giant head and slanted black eye aliens, and humanesque people in a stunning array of sexy costumes. If only these interesting shadow characters had somehow risen up to take down the nauseating leads, the movie might have redeemed itself.

So, there’s a boring wedding scene, where Jupiter is dressed lawsuit-close to Queen Amidala of Star Wars, there’s a slow-mo massive explosion sequence at the bad guy’s slave planet mine (where, “surprise,” Jupiter is saved at the last possible second by her wolfman in roller-skates), and there is the sloppy conclusion, which brings Jupiter back to earth with her now slightly kinder family of Russian slobs (who she saved from abduction and anal probing—seriously).

I’ll leave you with one of the more glaring plot holes: after Caine rescues Jupiter during the final kabooming slo-mo smashup (the soundtrack here was an Anglican ladies choir singing “aaaaaaaaooooouuuuuuuuu”), they have to catch a ride on the only ship nearby, piloted by a British lady in uniform (so I suppose she was a cop—I was only half-watching by this point); they don’t actually get to the ship, but they make it through the same temporary space portal nonetheless. On the other side, an alien crewmember on the ship says, “Captain, there’s no logic for this, but I’m picking up signs of Caine,” to which I said, “Exactly.” There’s no logic for most of what happens in Jupiter Ascending, and if I had to give it a rating out of five stars, I’d give it one and a half. The CGI and costume artists (I saw at least three hundred artists in the credits) deserve any available acclaim; the Wachowski brothers and the lead actors deserve a prolonged shower of rotten tomatoes.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (yup, a review)

Warning: full plot disclosure + wandering prose ahead

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon we went to see the new Avengers movie; I brazenly smuggled in a beer.  My husband and I were the only people in the theater (and possibly the entire cinema complex).  After a long string of idiotic TV commercials (why were they allowed into movie theaters?!) and six smashtastic previews, The Age of Ultron began.

Joss Whedon wrote and directed this and the previous Avengers movies; apparently, before this franchise he was an unknown, which gives me and my half finished comic book movie some hope.  This was a two-hour-long, highly energetic movie; the slow dialogue scenes never lasted more than three or four minutes (I checked).  But, Danny Elfman did avoid the pit that many epic movie composers fall headfirst into; his score didn’t blast our ears off, even in fight scenes. The loudest sounds came from an army of robots smashing semi-trucks and superheroes careening through glass coffee tables.

A plot synopsis: the Avengers are tracking down Loki’s scepter, a weapon from Thor and Loki’s world, which contains a devastating power source inside.  They blast through SHIELD’s (the bad guys) fortress in Sovokia (an Eastern bloc country where everybody speaks English) and get the scepter back, but they also run into a pair of superhuman Sovokian twins who mess things up a bit. The girl twin is like a sexier Jean Gray and the boy twin is a thuggier Flash (in other words, she’s telekenetic/telepathic and he’s really fast).  They’ve got a personal vendetta against Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., in maybe the best role of his career—seriously), who tangentially killed their parents when he was a black market weapons manufacturer.  The girl twin manages to plant a horrible vision into Tony Stark’s brain as he crashes through SHIELD’s creepy lab.

Back at Avengers headquarters, Tony Stark convinces Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help him merge the power source in Loki’s scepter with a free-floating high speed computer brain and a kickass robot: the result is Ultron, who goes bad within seconds of his birth.  As Ultron is coming into consciousness in Tony Stark’s office—artificial intelligence evolving into something we can’t ever see coming is a central theme in this movie—the Avengers are throwing a wild party upstairs.  Stan Lee, who executive produced this Marvel movie (his tenth? twentieth?), makes a cameo as a grizzly WWII vet (well, himself); I like Stan Lee and I’ve always loved Spiderman, but his two minute appearance was something like, “Oh right, there’s Stan Lee, again.”  After Stan is literally carried off screen (he gets “fake” drunk), Ultron appears before the Avengers and explains how he will destroy humanity, thus fulfilling his creator (Tony Stark)’s vision of peace. Only Tony and Dr. Banner knew of Ultron, which Stark created to protect the earth against alien invaders (this is the premonition the girl twin infected him with); so the other Avengers are pissed off at Tony but must regroup and go after Ultron, who has copied himself (itself?) all over the internet, breaking into secure government databases willy-nilly.

Leaving off the plot recap for a bit, I’d like to write about the pathos behind the Avengers.  The crew is led by Captain America (Chris Evans); there’s also Thor (a former Australian soap opera star, I’ve forgotten his name), Natalia (Scarlett Johansson, looking five years younger than in the last Avengers), and Green Arrow (another guy whose name I forgot).  The Hulk/Bruce Banner is like a shadowy distant cousin; he gets called in when everyone’s in real trouble (“code green”), but dutifully slinks off after the battle—he’s a self-made anomaly, he drank radiation as a young man.  At the end of the movie, the Hulk takes off in a stealth jet, intending to clock out of the Avengers completely.  Except for Thor, all of the Avengers have been molded into something other than what they once were.  Captain America willingly took some bizarro drug to become a superhuman soldier and fight the Nazis, then spent 75 years cryogenically frozen; Natalia was relentlessly trained into an assassin (unclear who dropped her into this program—was she an orphan?); Green Arrow was kidnapped from wealth and comfort and retrained as a killer; and Iron Man made and profited from weapons of mass destruction, until he made a suit that gave him immense strength paired with a godview of all the chaos his weapons had created, which painfully turned him into a protector of life.  Thor, the son of Odin, is more like Superman: a displaced god who ends up among humans.  How these awkward superpeople fit together is handled well; Dr. Banner and Natalia want to pair up, but their respective dark sides are too monstrous.

I mentioned earlier that Robert Downey Jr. gives a great performance here; playing an unlikeable, self-deprecating genius seems to come easily to him.  His part is crucial for keeping the crew together, personality-wise.  He’s the money and half the brains of the operation; thus, the rest of the Avengers must rally together to put up with Tony Stark, aging smartass.  But Iron Man’s not a bad guy; he’s even nursing a broken heart, over the absent Pepper Pot (played by Gweneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies—I’m not sure if she declined a part in Avengers or was out of the executive producer’s price range).  Samuel L. Jackson also drops by the farm (literally; the Avengers take refuge at Green Arrow’s farm) for a handful of dialogue and to promise he’ll rally sketchy air support in the final battle—as always, he delivers.

Many scenes later, after Ultron has amassed a robot army in Sovokia and the Hulk has destroyed a major African city, the Avengers bring forth their second AI savior, which Tony Stark and Dr. Banner have created in secret, again. This second robot is an actual human-machine hybrid, and it was begun by Ultron, as the evolution of humans; the Avengers snatched away the roboman (humanoid? android?) before Ultron could upload his consciousness into it.  Instead, Tony Stark fills the hybrid body with his benevolent computer program, and with a “mind stone,” the coded power source at the center of Loki’s scepter.  The being that emerges is indeed good, and something like an angel; more than human, more than machine, but with compassion for both.  Named Vision, he’s even born red, which in the Buddhist tradition signifies compassion.

The final epic showdown takes place in the fictional capital of Sovokia, which Ultron has rigged to detach from earth and rise up into space, then hurtle back down as an annihilating asteroid.  Ultron has somehow corraled hundreds of robots to help with his cause, and the CGI is, well, terrifying.  The twins have seen into Ultron’s warped AI mind and join up with the Avengers, and much smashing, shooting, and slow-motion explosions ensue.  The more real these scenes of mass destruction and horror become, the more I fear for our collective unconscious.  Yes, yes, I willingly walked into the movie theater, but I rarely seek out violence; it stays with me too long, and some of the shots from this film will keep me up at night.  Unlike a lot of movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t even show people being maimed or shot point-blank (most of the casualties were robots); but the scale of devastation, whole cities being mowed down in an orgy of shredded glass and steel, was deeply disturbing.  The more images like these are amplified, the less horrible they become.  We get a little numb.

Joss Whedon didn’t leave it there though; the Avengers have one last chance to implode the evacuated city-cum-asteroid, and the final showdown happens in the nave of an old church.  Flying robots fight flying superheroes, framed by crumbling church walls; it’s an homage to a Renaissance painting, The Battle between Heaven and Hell.  The characters look very much like angels and demons clawing it out, and we see them from below, the thick white clouds not far above them.

Ultron is defeated, the world is saved; but only temporarily.  The plot sets up at least one more movie, so Avengers: Age of Ultron’s two hundred stuntmen (a conservative estimate of the credits) aren’t out of work yet.  Not to mention the dozen or so model makers, Mr. Downey Jr.’s head chef, and Ms. Johansson’s extensive hair-care team.  Should I rate this movie, after a three page long review? Okay: four and a half stars.  I enjoyed the whole thing, except the wanton destruction, and it was better than I expected (and not just because I got to drink a beer in an empty theater).

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Sunday evenings

have a ragged edge,  like torn paper.  The weekend page is mostly torn off and a long blank Monday is peeking through.  It’s a late spring this year for the northeast and this also sharpens the edge of Sunday night, nearly eleven o’clock now and the moon is covered, will have its day tomorrow,  lunedi.  As I’ve gotten older the dread of working burned away,  replaced by creaking exhaustion.  Pick this up,  put it down.  Driving a car on a crowded city street buckling with cracks and holes: also work.  Please  know I am not griping,
this is a plain statement of events.  On Sunday evenings the air is full of dashes and dollar signs; by Wednesday, Sunday  is  a forgotten ancestor. 

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